Singer's lament for the Left Bank strikes a false note


They came to take away the corner grocer's and the intellectuals and artists said nothing. They took away the open-air market and the intellectuals said nothing. They banished the poor people and the immigrants to the suburbs and the intellectuals said little. They took away the Raoul Vidal record shop and the intellectuals grumbled slightly. Then they took away Le Divan, their favourite book shop, and the intellectuals and artists organised a protest movement. Or rather, in the finest traditions of French intellectuals, they had a split and started two protest movements.

This was the week that some of France's best-known, and best dressed, artists and intellectuals took up arms to save their ancestral home, Saint- Germain-des-Pres, from an alien invasion.

For years, designer clothes shops, and exclusive boutiques, have been spreading across the river into the fashionable bohemian-literary Left Bank. Juliette Greco, the singer and actress, one of the few living links with Saint-Germain's great days in the 1950s, held a press conference on Tuesday to protest that enough was enough: she was starting a pressure group to save the neighbourhood.

The next day another pressure group, rejected by Ms Greco as too political, started up with the support of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Aznavour and Catherine Deneuve. If you sit outside the Cafe de Flore, the spiritual epicentre of Saint-Germain, and pay pounds 5 for a glass of beer, you may wonder what the fuss is about. Or rather why it did not begin years ago.

On the other side of the Boulevard, you see the building site where a Giorgio Armani fashion emporium is to be; the New Man boutique; a Belgian mussels-and-chips restaurant and Barclays Bank. On the terrace of the Cafe, where Sartre and de Beauvoir traded philosophical barbs, the dominant language is English: the main topic of intellectual conversation is shopping.

In truth, Saint-Germain-des-Pres stopped being a "fabulous literary crucible", as Ms Greco describes it, three decades ago. Sartre emigrated back to Montparnasse in the early 1960s. Its transformation into a snob- fashionable area is symbolised as much by the presence of those star names, paying star prices for their apartments, as by the invasion of famous labels.

But I have some sympathy for Ms Greco and the others. When I lived in Paris in the late 1970s, Saint-Germain-des-Pres still had a battered charm, full of small book and record stores and tiny antique shops.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the landlords, with the City of Paris one of the worst offenders, doubled and trebled the rents and drove such places away. The Divan bookshop, a rabbit-warren of all that was classical, avant-garde or obscure, moved to the bourgeois 15th arrondissement last year. Its landlord, the Paris Town Hall, had demanded a rent rise.

The revolt of the rich and famous echoes, or parodies, many of the complaints of poorer or middle-income ex-Parisians, who have been pushed out into the suburbs in the last 10 or 15 years. They say Paris has become a museum for tourists and a bazaar for the rich. They found themselves with their noses pressed to the window of their city, rarely able to join in the fun. So they moved out to the suburbs, where at least they had space and a few trees.

At the same time, Jacques Chirac, as Mayor of Paris, pursued a City of Westminster-style policy of encouraging the immigrant, the poor and troublesome to move beyond the Boulevard Peripherique into the concrete wastelands.

All in all, there has been a sharp gentrification of Paris in the last two decades. The poorer neighbourhoods, once scattered through the city, are now concentrated to the north and east. One of my favourite places used to be the Marais, the once aristocratic area east of the centre, which was just beginning to rise to gentility after three centuries of dire unrespectability. In the 1970s, you could still find 17th-century town houses whose multiple courtyards had become sooty Dickensian agglomerations of tiny workshops, sewing bonnets , mending bicycles or printing leaflets. Strolling through the Marais is still fascinating: but it has now become a bastion of aggressive trendiness and the capital of Parisian gay culture.

It used to be possible to say that, unlike London, people lived right in the centre of Paris. It is still largely true. But the historic heart of the city, the first arrondissement, around the Louvre and Les Halles, has become almost as lifeless, out of working hours, as the City of London. Its population has fallen from 30,000 to 18,000 in three decades: partly because of the destruction of Les Halles (the Parisian Covent Garden), and because of the deliberate Chiraquian policy to make it a business and office ghetto.

Perhaps, one should not protest too much. Paris remains, compared to London, compared to most big cities, a walkable, livable city, a low- rise city, a city with good and cheap public transport and, in most neighbourhoods, plentiful, specialist food shops. Some parts of Paris, such as the newly re-gilded dome of the Invalides, look more splendid than they have for decades. But the city has, inevitably fallen victim to the late-20th-century banalisation and standardisation of towns and cities everywhere.

In Saint-Germain's case, instead of the tyranny of Bennetton and the Gap it is the tyranny of Armani and Christian Dior.

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